Q&A with Phoenix Normand
Phoenix Normand is.. Wise. Real. Raw. Effective. Determined. And oh so Sassy!
He has spent the past 26+ years as a top C-suite Executive Assistant in the USA and he is now tackling and solving the top issues EA’s face around the world: communication, compensation, professional growth and balance.
He is here in Sydney as part of his world-tour where he’ll run one of his coveted workshops, and we were able to have him as a guest speaker for a Sassy Assistants event last night at NOLA Smokehouse.
We spoke about his journey & experience as a top, high-performing EA and he gave us some pro tips on how to ‘play the game’, be prepared & confident and make it as a career EA. Here is what he had to say:
We know you started out as a performer in your early years, and you even sang for the US President!
But how did you transition into being an EA? What made you want to move into the corporate world?
Yes, I sang for a US President…Bill Clinton. I’ve always held simultaneous jobs. When I started I worked in Investment Banking. Since I was on the West Coast, I worked “banker’s hours” which mean my days typically started at 6am and ended at 3pm on the West Coast to align with normal business hours on the East Coast. I was living in San Francisco at the time and singing with a band that I’d help start at the time. I made about $50-100 per gig which isn’t much to live on so I took a “real job” to have real income, health benefits, etc. I started in a typing pool and eventually became an EA when a banker fired his EA, loved the fact that I was the only one in the typing pool with “the nerve” to copy edit his research reports (and do it consistently well), and offered me the job. I took it and the rest is history.
Throughout your career you’ve gained the trust, respect and support from top CEO’s of multi-billion-dollar businesses in the US. Can you tell us a little about when you first started out as an EA, how you made your bosses realise how valuable you were and how you gained the level of respect and trust to be considered their business partner?
I’m opinionated, especially when I see something that doesn’t add up or that has the possibility of going pear-shaped. I’m also a huge research nerd. I love validating everything I do in business and in life with some sound data to back up my whims. I’ve always been that way even when people consider me to be a huge risk-taker. Throughout my career I have always made sure that anything I present to my boss or any opinion I have is based in some sort of fact with verifiable metrics or research to back it up. This has always been one of the quickest ways for me to gain the respect of the people I support or quickly realize that I’m working for the wrong person when, no matter what you say, even when backed with solid evidence, they choose not to listen or assume that you have no clout because they see you only as an Assistant or a means to an end. Those who valued my opinion and gave me the benefit of the doubt typically realized quite quickly that I had the same passion, the same ethos, and the same ego-driven need to be respected that they had as evidenced by the above-and-beyond work that I always provided for them.
Even the best of us make mistakes, no one’s perfect right!? Have you made any big mistakes during your career and how did you handle it?
The biggest mistakes I’ve made have been stupid shit like forgetting to book the hotel after booking the flight and scrambling the day of travel to score a hotel in a city that’s essentially sold out. (That’s where your networks and “tribe” come in handy!) Or forgetting to cancel a flight and then having to beg the carrier (likely a manager) to have it refunded or credited. Silly errors. Nothing, however, that costs the company thousand/millions of dollars. That’s a terminable offense. The best way to handle mistakes, large and small, is to simply own up to them the moment they happen and assure that you’ve already enacted Plan B to fix the problem and assure them it won’t happen again. Then, simply move on. Where we get into trouble is when we make a huge, Hollywood production out of the mistake, verbally beat ourselves up thinking our execs will feel even more sorry for us and have some mercy, or worse, try to cover it up and say nothing. They ALWAYS find out. Like, ALWAYS. So, own up to it. Enact your Plan B and FIX IT quickly. And move on. Beating it death makes you look incompetent and will call your work ethic into question. Which gives your exec license to question everything you do going forward.
Over the past 26 years you’ve definitely seen and heard it all, numerous times I’m sure, and now you’re using your experience and expertise to help EA’s around the world to tackle the top issues we face as assistants. How did Tribe U come about and how is it different to other workshops and training?
TRIBE U is a culmination of 26+ years of being in the seat and many of those years attending conferences that taught me absolutely nothing. It’s no secret that I despise conferences. I find them essentially worthless (in their current format) and aside from some decent networking opportunities of no real value to me as a TOP Assistant. I believe that they’ve, essentially, become a money grab and are more focused on the spectacle than actually teaching anything of real value. Like THE TRUTH. This role is hard. It’s often thankless. You will have to fight every day in some way to be taken seriously or be heard. Misogyny is still pervasive. Execs see us as accessory, not vital to the business. Our salaries aren’t commensurate with our contributions. The job description, upon which we’re being judged and compensated, only reflects a fraction of what we do on a daily basis. This is why I started TRIBE U. To TELL THE TRUTH and to give EAs real strategies, based on my experience, that help them circumvent the BS, advocate for themselves effectively, “recognize the game” (because it’s ALL a huge game), and score the opportunities, compensation and respect they want in the shortest time possible, by playing the game a little bit better than the people who hired them.
From your travels around the world doing workshops with high-performing EA’s, what have you found to be the most common/consistent issues?
The #1 issue with high-performing EAs is still lack of confidence. We’re still beholden to this idea that we will be fired for having an opinion. Straight up. We allow execs far more latitude than they allow us. We “take it” instead of checking an exec who has clearly crossed a line. We accept “bell curve” compensation bumps when we’ve outperformed everyone in the company in sheer, day-to-day output without even asking for an explanation. This lack of confidence continues to keep many top EAs from asking for those opportunities to lead projects or take on specific work that enhances their skills and allows them to grow in position. It robs the exec of an opportunity to really see their EA as a peer and true partner in the office vs. a direct report and implicit liability to the office. Until we get comfortable with being uncomfortable and having crunchy conversations, pushing back on inequities or poor behavior, or demanding explanations for clearly biased or bullshit decisions, then we’ll continue kicking the can down the road instead of making any real change to the inaccurate perception of the role and those of us in it.
Australia seems to have a different culture than the US when it comes to salary, pay rises and negotiation, but can you give us any advice or tips when it comes to advocating for ourselves and negotiation in terms of salary and pay rises?
I teach this extensively in TRIBE U so I’m not giving away the whole cow here. I’d say the biggest pieces of advice I can give are this: KNOW YOUR WORTH and BE PREPARED TO WALK. Hand in hand with lack of confidence in the role is our inability to effectively negotiate. Moms didn’t teach daughters how to negotiate. It wasn’t taught in school. Society has always preached “be the peacemaker.” It’s absolutely imperative to be able to get comfortable negotiating on your behalf. It’s part of “the game.” Men do it every day, all day long. Everything in business is a negotiation. And sometimes it’s terse. But it’s what makes CEOs successful and businesses thrive. How did we miss that memo?
If you know your worth meaning what makes you unique, what ALL you bring to the table and how you rank within your chosen market and at your experience level, then it quickly becomes easier to negotiate for what you want, especially with regard to pay rises. It’s quite an aggressive endeavor that requires a lot of research, self belief, and a perfectly constructed presentation in the language spoken in the room to make your exec understand that you mean business and with an argument so compelling they can’t say, “No.” And if there is a “no” you’ve already done enough research about the market, may have even gone on an interview or two, and know that you could confidently find another opportunity that with someone who will pay you exactly what you want and provide the opportunities to grow your current exec or company can’t or won’t.
Lastly, can you give us some pro tips on how we get our Execs to see value in development workshops like yours and how do we get them to pay?
Your professional development is not your executive’s responsibility. It’s yours. Plain as that. I purposely price my workshop 3-5x lower than these expensive worthless conferences, not to undercut their pricing, but to have it be affordable enough for an EA to pay out-of-pocket. I personally wouldn’t work for a company that doesn’t offer their EAs some sort of continuing education budget. But I believe that even if a company doesn’t pay for it, YOU should. It’s YOUR career and your professional trajectory that’s at stake. If you’re serious about your career then you’ll find a way to pay for the education you need to get to the next level. I often roll my eyes at EAs who claim they’re serious about their careers but scoff at a $350 registration fee, when I pay for lunch and give them proven information and strategies consistently yielding a ROI of 10x. I have the receipts. Execs don’t want their money wasted. Present them with an educational opportunity, state in no uncertain terms what you hope to gain from it and how it will impact the business, and create some sort of check-in or trackable outcome that confirms you took something of value away and, thus, justified the expense. Most EAs ask for expensive conferences to be paid for, take 2 days off (stressful for an exec), return to work (behind by 2 days), offer no sort of retro or “pay it forward” presentation to the company about what they’ve learned, and show no marked improvement in their work ethics, productivity, etc. Which feels like a huge waste of money to an exec who likely already looks at the role as a convenience vs. an opportunity to build a business partnership with or create a mini-me from their EA. Again, this all comes back to mindset. I don’t ask Daddy for the keys to the car and change for an ice cream. Instead, I’ll ask for the day off, skip Starbucks and bank that $7/day for as long as it takes to pay the reg fee, and enroll MYSELF into a class that makes me better. Then I’ll come back, rave about it, and teach anyone who will listen what efficiencies I picked up. Inevitably, my exec will appreciate all of the rave reviews and usually offer to reimburse it or pay for it the next time.
You can follow Phoenix on LinkedIn
Nis & Sarah